In March of 2020, immediately before coronavirus spread like wildfire through the country and turned all our lives upside-down, my old college buddy Tory and I took a road trip along Route 66 from Tulsa, OK to Albuquerque, NM. We took three days to get to Albuquerque, driving along the actual historic route of Highway 66 whenever possible, driving on the interstate only when we had to, and sticking our heads into Route 66 museums and other roadside attractions at every opportunity.
If you’re not familiar with the “mystique” of Route 66, basically it was emblematic of the 1930s-50s pre-interstate highway era of American travel and accompanying slower pace of life. Think of the movie “Cars.” The mid-century roadside service stations, diners, and motels hold an iconic place in American lore. When Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985 (after being functionally superseded by interstates for decades), it was considered the end of an era. Read more about it on Wikipedia if you’re curious.
This trip is very surreal to look back on now, because the world was seemingly falling apart day by day as we were on it and we ultimately chose to drive back a day early. We were gone from Monday, March 9 to Friday, March 13, so these were literally the very last days of the “old normal” that we all knew. Nonetheless, we had some great food, saw some awesome scenery, and enjoyed a slice of nostalgic Americana. I’ll certainly never forget this one!
Route 66 didn’t start or end in Tulsa (it ran from Los Angeles to Chicago), but Tulsa is considered the “birthplace” of the Route because the U.S. Highway 66 Association was founded in Tulsa in 1927 and its founder, Cyrus Avery, lived there. Our trip started at Cyrus Avery Plaza on the banks of the Arkansas River.
This sculpture, which you can just barely see on the right edge of the previous picture, is called “East Meets West.” It might as well be called “New Meets Old,” as it depicts a slick new automobile of the 20th century frightening horses drawing a cart of the 19th century.
My buddy Tory and I. This is where my profile pic comes from!
This is Pops in Arcadia, OK, a diner and convenience store/souvenir shop with hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of soft drinks for sale. We got an orange cream soda, a blackcurrant soda(!), and a couple of different kinds of root beer. I’m not really a huge root beer fan, but it was all part of the experience. The steel bottle sculpture out front is (of course) 66 ft/20 m tall.
After making it through the Oklahoma City area, we spent some time exploring the Stafford Air and Space Museum in Weatherford (named after astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, who was from there). There’s quite a lot in there, including one of the only Titan II launch vehicles on display.
The Old Town Museum in Elk City, OK
On the second day we drove across the Texas Panhandle. Here are two examples of the old service stations I was talking about; I think the first was in Shamrock and the second was in McLean.
The exact midpoint of Route 66 (and pretty much of our drive) was in Adrian, TX.
Dinner that night in Tucumcari, NM was a real treat: Watson’s BBQ! It was just terrific – the meat was so tender, juicy, and full of flavor. The peach cobbler was moist and sweet as sugar. 4.9 stars on Google with 339 reviews isn’t something you see every day, and this place did not disappoint! If you are passing through Tucumcari I cannot recommend it highly enough.
At the restaurant, we met a couple of English cyclists who were planning to take a few weeks to bike from coast to coast across the U.S. I’m pretty sure they didn’t get to finish because less than a week later everything fell apart and practically the whole country entered lockdown. I didn’t catch their names, so I suppose I’ll never know what happened to them or if they were able to make it home safely. I hope they ended up okay.
This was our awesomely retro motel, the Motel Safari. Also recommended, very neat decor in the rooms and comfortable beds.
We stopped by the Tucumcari Historical Museum and saw some interesting artifacts. While there, I heard two other visitors speaking what I’m pretty sure was Pennsylvania German for the first time.
The Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, NM! It’s a natural sinkhole 81 ft/25 m deep.
Our first glimpses of the mountains, and snow!
On the afternoon of the third day, we finally arrived in Albuquerque. My brother used to live here years ago, so I’d been before, but it had been a long time. There’s charming 18th-century adobe architecture in the Old Town, mountains in the background, and insanely good New Mexican food.
The Rio Grande. It’s hard to process that this is the same river that forms the border with Mexico, hundreds of miles to the south.
The next morning we hiked around Petroglyph National Monument. Lots of ancient Native rock art (and more recent graffiti), craggy volcanic terrain, and spectacular vistas!
Those are clouds spilling over the edge of the Sandia Mountains.
Then we rode the Sandia Peak Tramway cable car up to Sandia Crest, the highest point of the Sandia Mountains at 10,678 ft/3255 m, where snow was still hanging around. The tramway, by the way, is the longest in North America and the second-longest in the world.
You get a much different perspective of mountain slopes from a cable car than you do driving up them – in addition to being able to look straight down, it’s nice to be able to just enjoy the views without having to worry about staying on the road.
Thursday night we met an old friend of Tory’s at El Pinto, on the north side of town. It’s a bit of a touristy kind of place, but lots of atmosphere and good, hearty Mexican food. Check the price before you go ordering a pitcher of margaritas!
By that point, we had heard enough about the rapidly deteriorating COVID situation that we decided we need to head back to Tulsa on Friday, rather than Saturday like we had planned. Aside from the risk of getting infected ourselves, we were genuinely worried they were going to close state lines and trap us in New Mexico. Looking back on it now, it might seem silly – as far as I know, no state ever even considered doing so, and I’m not even sure they have the authority – but it was such an unprecedented situation and things were changing so rapidly, we had no idea what to expect.
It’s a shame – on Friday, we had planned on doing a loop out west of Albuquerque (still on old Route 66) to the Bandera Ice Caves and El Malpais National Conservation Area, as well as see the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. No doubt those would have been some more great pictures, but alas, it was not to be. Some other time, hopefully.
So, on Friday morning we hightailed it back east on I-40 under threatening, gloomy skies the entire way – a harbinger of the dark days to come. The only points of interest on the return trip were the life-size Stations of the Cross in Groom, TX and a fantastic roadside Indian restaurant in Amarillo called (not kidding) It’s a Punjabi Affair.